Dr. Bill. M. Mak graduated from Peking University and is currently based in the Department of Indological Studies at Kyoto University.
My Journey as a Buddhist, from Diamond Sutra to Diamond Sutra (Part 2)
Buddhist faith in the Land of Atheists
It was a very special time for Buddhists in China when I first arrived in Beijing as a somewhat mature student. Buddhism was enjoying a kind of revival, unimaginable for a country who still held on to the Communist ideology, which once asserted religion to be the opium of the people. Buddhism, which was practically obliterated during the Great Cultural Revolution, revived itself and grew at an unprecedented speed, reaching all levels of society to become a kind of elite religion on one hand, as well a grass roots religion for the pious but religiously illiterate. Buddhist societies sprang up in universities, Buddhist workshops were attended by Party officials and Buddhist seminars were held everywhere, some of which the noveau riche aspiring to become culturally enlightened would pay a fortune to attend. The temples were crowded with incense-wielding worshippers whose understanding of Buddhism might be very different from mine. Nonetheless, it was clear that Buddhism was becoming a major force, if not an enterprise, in Communist China.
Knowing the history of religious persecution and the negative labels Buddhism had been branded with in China, I was initially hesitant to identify myself as a Buddhist, especially in front of the non-Buddhists. It was a pleasant surprise when I found out that being a Buddhist carried little negative connotation, at least to the younger generation. In fact, amongst the Buddhists I knew, many were philanthropists and social activists, people who were interested in the welfare of the society, if not at least their own betterment. Perhaps years of Communism left the people with a spiritual vacuity which Buddhism was only too ready to fill. The connection between Buddhism and the traditional Chinese culture was revived, drawing huge crowds who sought a sense of pride in their cultural heritage.
The Communist government took notice of the rapid development and identified Buddhism and Buddhists as an “invaluable social resource”. In 2005, the government organized the First World Buddhist Forum with a million-dollar budget to draw Buddhist leaders from all over the world. The government’s stance was clear, the State and the Religion should collaborate with each other to realize the Communist vision of “Harmonious Society”, with the subtext of battling the negative influences of the evil cults and religions of foreign influences. It was curious to note that Buddhism was not seen as a foreign religion due to the long history of its indigenization.
All in all, my experience as a Buddhist was overwhelmingly positive. There were times of course not without chagrins, especially when one encountered the occasional faked monks in the government-run temples which functioned solely as tourist attraction than a place of worship, all the superstitious powwow which seemed to be making a major comeback, or the cultish and sectarian tendency of certain Buddhist groups. Last but not least, the opiate use of religion as “social harmonizer” by the government was something of suspect, if not at least ironic. Nonetheless, as most Chinese would not hesitate to admit, it had already come a long way from how things were ten, twenty years ago. Opportunities come with all kind of risks and it is time for Chinese Buddhists to make themselves heard and to exert their positive influences over the society through social engagement.
The Mystery of Western Buddhism
The experience I had in China brought me a sense of belonging, that is to say, a sense that I belonged to a group of people who were striving for the common and greater good of society and for themselves as well. Whenever I met another Buddhist, I immediately felt a kind of closeness and security, and there was an urge to exchange ideas and thoughts. That was however not the case when I arrived in Germany, where the majority of Buddhists I met were indifferent, if not hostile, especially for the self-professed Tibetan Buddhists who found out that I was Chinese.
For the Tibetan Buddhists, there was little to share because their tantric practices were often guarded as secrecy to start with. On the campus of Hamburg University, one sometimes encountered one or two Western monks or nuns, whom I always felt like approaching. After all, as a lay Buddhist, I felt it was my duty to support the Sa?gha who devoted themselves to the preservation of Buddhist teachings. I was rather discouraged however by their aloofness which I sometimes told myself, was merely a hard shell carry a soft heart.
My perception of the Western Buddhists changed rapidly as I developed closer contacts with some of them, which given the freedom and individualism emblematic of Western societies, came in a great variety. In the first place, there were the self-declared Buddhists who considered themselves Buddhists because they were sympathetic to the teachings of the Buddha. Some interpreted it as a philosophy which they saw as superior to others, while other saw it a lifestyle, a teaching which advocated a form of liberalism which I never encountered in any Buddhist text I ever came across. These Buddhists did not belong to any Buddhist organization, never took the Refuge or percepts from a monk which they saw as unnecessary. They felt they had access to the knowledge of the “Scripture” far advanced than the technologically backward monks and nuns, thanks to the Western scholarship on Buddhism and the Internet. By “lifestyle”, I meant that Buddhism was interpreted by some as an attitude or outlook of life which carried no implication to one’s actual day-to-day life. One could as if lead any kind of life and be justified by a line or two found in one of the s?tras in the ocean of Buddhist literature. It was always a moment of embarrassment when we discovered that there seemed to be more differences than similarities in terms of what our worldview, belief or our stance on certain ethical issues were, after the initial “oh I am Buddhist too” euphoria.
Then there were the Zen Buddhists and the Tibetan Buddhists who seemed to practice a form of Buddhism which was so foreign to me that it was almost mysterious, if not completely unfathomable. Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism were the two major forms of Buddhism brought to the West and had prospered especially since the 1960s. The Western adherents I encountered interpreted their faith as the Absolute Faith, absolute in the sense not only among other religions, but also among other forms of Buddhism. Many took offense when I pointed out that both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism were developed centuries after the historical Buddha passed away and their teachings absorbed many elements from the culture where they were born. For the Western Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama was Buddha incarnated, deemed worthy of the highest form of worship and it was considered nothing less than blasphemy if the Holy One was ever commented on. Because of the antagonism between the Tibetan lamas in exile and the Communist Chinese government, there was a distinct and indiscriminate sense of hostility against the Chinese or anything resembling or connected to the Chinese, amongst the Western Tibetan Buddhists. Once I explained to a young m?l?-wearing German Tibetan Buddhist who confronted me with the Tibetan Problem, that I was partial to neither side except my wish for all conflicts to be resolved in a peaceful manner. The young Buddhist then continued to challenge me, “But you are Chinese, right? Of course, you are against Tibetan Separation.” First of all, I am only Chinese by ethnicity and I have no connection with the Communist government or its policy on Tibet, furthermore I saw no connection between my being Chinese and my stance on the Tibetan Question, or for that matter, my relation with another person – thanks to Diamond S?tra’s teaching of No-Self who asked us to see things beyond their labels. But there was no chance of winning the trust and friendship of this fellow Buddhist because there was a Holy War going on in his mind.
I trust that there are decent, reasonable Buddhists whom I unfortunately missed during my sojourn in Germany, but my experience there prompted me to reflect more deeply into my own faith and my own identity as a Buddhist. Was such disparity in beliefs envisioned by the Buddha Himself? For the Western Buddhists, there seemed to be an obsession with Enlightenment, which was interpreted to be a Mystic Experience one may bring about by some esoteric practices, be it mantra-chanting or visualization of union with some truly terrifying-looking deity, justifiable by metaphysics incomprehensible even to the brightest mind (or indeed not intended to be comprehensible at all!). Was that really what Buddha taught and what being a Buddhist is about? Somehow in the back of my mind, the Western form of Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism reminded me of Protestantism and Catholicism respectively, which were in rapid decline in the West. Was it out of dissatisfaction with one’s native religion that Westerns turned themselves to Buddhism and in the process adapted Buddhism into what their hearts felt most inclined? How about my own form of Buddhism? Was it not too an adulterated mix of beliefs and values which I sought to gratify my inner needs of some kind?